The Socceroos have defeated New Zealand 2-0 at Eden Park in the second and final trans-Tasman friendly.
It was a quiet opening to the game as the new-look Socceroos side familiarised themselves with each other. Australia were managing possession well without really penetrating the All Whites’ defence.
There was a hint of handball when Chris Wood’s cross in the 10th minute hit Atkinson’s chest but it was immediately waved away by the referee.
The Socceroos’ first opportunity came just a few minutes later when Australia bypassed the Kiwi midfield after some scrappy passing. Riley McGree advanced towards the All Whites’ goal with passing options to both sides but chose to shoot instead. The strike stung Oli Sail’s gloves but was too close to the goalkeeper to cause any real trouble.
The arm-wrestle continued as the visitors, at times, looked nervous in possession. The New Zealand press was again effective after it paralysed Australia in Brisbane. The Socceroos seemed to have no answer to this tactic – something their World Cup opponents will surely be monitoring.
Ben Waine came on for Chris Wood in the 32nd minute after the big striker, who plays his club football for Newcastle United in the English Premier League, succumbed to a rib injury.
Matthew Garbutt was lively for the home side and looked the most likely to open the scoring.
Australia’s chance finally arrived just before half-time when Mitchell Duke set up Marco Tilio perfectly for what should’ve been the opening goal. Inexplicably, Tilio dragged his wide and the ball rolled out feebly for an All Whites goal kick.
It was a golden opportunity and the debutant absolutely had to score.
Tim Payne then brought down Tilio in the penalty area with a challenge from behind that perhaps could’ve been trouble but the referee wasn’t interested in awarding a spot-kick.
It remained scoreless at half-time in the second trans-Tasman friendly.
Surprisingly Graham Arnold didn’t go to his bench at the break considering he had the likes of Jason Cummings and Garang Kuol at his disposal.
The Socceroos made a good start to the second stanza, creating some half chances, and before long Australia were ahead through Duke. Connor Metcalfe’s perfect cross found Duke’s head and the veteran made no mistake with the header from about six yards out.
It would be difficult to argue it was more than Australia deserved considering they should have gone ahead before half-time.
The visitors were already looking a much better version of themselves from the first half – passes were sticking and they began to control possession.
Arnold eventually called upon his bench, bringing on debutants Ryan Strain, Cameron Devlin and Jason Cummings for the final 25 minutes.
A mistake from debutant Harrison Delbridge allowed Alex Greive in on goal but the substitute drilled his shot straight at Andrew Redmayne.
It took until the 73rd minute for the moment all Socceroos fans were waiting for: the introduction of rising star Garang Kuol.
All Whites Skipper Winston Reid then departed the pitch in his final international appearance to a standing ovation from the Eden Park crowd.
A FIFA-like sequence that started with Kuol skinning Storm Roux on the right touchline and became pinball in the All Whites box ended with a penalty awarded to Australia.
Cummings stepped up to the spot and expertly dispatched his spot-kick into the bottom right corner to mark his debut with a goal.
Again out of almost nothing, Kuol, with some nifty footwork in the box, could’ve made it 3-0 but took too long to get his shot off and was closed down.
There was a late flurry for the hosts but it ended 2-0 in favour of the Socceroos, the All Whites being kept scoreless across the two trans-Tasman friendlies.
Does Arnold know his starting 11 for France clash?
It’s a strange feeling typing this, but it is just 58 days until Australia take on France at the Al Janoub Stadium in their opening Group D match.
Today’s fixture brings to an end the Socceroos’ match preparation. The squad will very soon be hopping on flights around the world back to their respective clubs and won’t be back in camp until it’s World Cup time. With that in mind, does Arnold know his best XI for this team?
Australia have No.9s who can’t find the back of the net, a midfield that on paper seems to be our strongest aspect but hasn’t been gelling and fullbacks who are utterly deficient on the ball.
Do any of the new faces who came in today get a start against France? Arnold talked about this two-match window as an opportunity for players to stake their claim. Did he mean that, and if so, did anyone really have enough time to prove himself?
One thing’s for sure: Arnie has a big job on his hands to put out an XI that will compete with France, Denmark and Tunisia in two months’ time.
Mixed results for new faces
There was plenty of surprise when the likes of Cummings and Kuol weren’t given any minutes on Thursday evening in Brisbane, with Cummings not even in the match day squad. That changed today with a vastly different starting 11 to the one that ran out in the first friendly.
The Mariners pair were eventually brought on towards the end, with both involved in the Socceroos’ second goal. Cummings scored the penalty to mark his Socceroos debut with a goal. Could either, or both, of these cult heroes make an impact in Qatar?
It was a completely new-look midfield – Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine and Ajdin Hrustic made way for Connor Metcalfe, Dennis Genreau and Riley McGree. The Olympic midfield trio looked composed early on and their connection was plain to see.
It was a mixed bag from there, however, with all three struggling with the All White press and missing easy passes. Central midfield remains the most enigmatic position in this team.
Marco Tilio earned his first start for his country but struggled to get into the game. With few of Australia’s attacks coming down the left side the Melbourne City man’s touches were very limited.
His failure to convert what was easily Australia’s best chance of the first half certainly did not help his cause either. Tilio could’ve won a penalty when he was brought down by Tim Payne in the box just a minute later but it was waved away by the referee.
Harrison Delbridge made his debut in the heart of defence next to Thomas Deng, who is no veteran at this level himself.
Andrew Redmayne was also given the start, perhaps a reward for his heroics versus Peru. He won’t feature much – if at all – in the World Cup, but his is arguably the most wholesome Socceroos story we’ve seen in some time so it’s hard to begrudge the Sydney FC shot-stopper getting some minutes.
How much weight can be put into recent results?
Today’s result extends the Socceroos’ winning streak to four games. On paper, it sounds great. Building confidence among the fans, players and coaches for the real thing in Qatar with four games without a loss.
In reality, however, it’s four unconvincing victories – one of which came via the penalty shootout. Look at the Brisbane game – Australia struggled to create much of note and were utterly paralysed by the New Zealand press.
It’s hard to expect too much from what was essentially a brand new side in today’s game but nonetheless it was a clunky first-half showing from players staking their claim for a spot on football’s biggest stage. It was a much-improved second-half performance, to be fair, but you just don’t get the feeling the team is at the level they need to be at.
Put simply, these performances have done nothing to inspire confidence in these Socceroos.
In the Australian football media there is a tendency to get too cynical and pessimistic, of that there can be no doubt. But the current administration and playing squad have earned the cynicism and pessimism.
If the Socceroos don’t make it out of Group D, that will mark the fourth-straight occurrence of failing to qualify for the round of 16.
The last thing any stakeholder wants is for the national team to fly home from Qatar with their tails between their legs after yet another World Cup failure. But based on the data available, what other outcome can be expected?
Graham Arnold has been much-maligned and he surely has one final chance to prove the doubters wrong in the World Cup. Arnie simply cannot be the long-term option for national team coach, barring an incredible run in Qatar.
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